When Elephants Fly
by Nancy Richardson Fischer
Genre: YA, Coming of Age
Length: 400 Pages
Coming: September 4, 2018
Blurb via GoodReads:
T. Lily Decker is a high school senior with a twelve-year plan: avoid stress, drugs, alcohol and boyfriends, and take regular psych quizzes administered by her best friend, Sawyer, to make sure she’s not developing schizophrenia. Genetics are not on Lily’s side.
When she was seven, her mother, who had paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill her. And a secret has revealed that Lily’s odds are even worse than she thought. Still, there’s a chance to avoid triggering the mental health condition, if Lily can live a careful life from ages eighteen to thirty, when schizophrenia most commonly manifests.
But when a newspaper internship results in Lily witnessing a mother elephant try to kill her three-week-old calf, Swifty, Lily can’t abandon the story or the calf. With Swifty in danger of dying from grief, Lily must choose whether to risk everything, including her sanity and a first love, on a desperate road trip to save the calf’s life, perhaps finding her own version of freedom along the way.
I received an early release copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher.
As a person with an education background in psychology, I had some misgivings about the subject matter of this novel going into it. Lily’s schizophrenic mother tried to kill her when she was a young girl. Lily struggles to deal with that trauma and also the looming threat of developing the disorder herself, given the genetic component. Schizophrenia is a such a highly stigmatized illness, and a novel with a schizophrenic character committing such a dramatic act of violence at the center of the story is concerning. While delusions in thought can cause a person with schizophrenia to become violent, most people living with this disorder are not violent and are at far greater risk of harming themselves than they are anyone else. So while Lily’s story is certainly not out of the realm of possibility in the real world, these are important things to keep in mind when reading a story like this.
That being said, I do think that Fischer made efforts to treat the subject matter with sensitivity. She has used Lily’s concerns about developing the disorder as a means to relay information to the reader; Lily has researched this topic tirelessly as a means of maintaining a sense of control over her life and mental health, and is aware, for example, of the risk of suicide for patients dealing with this disorder. Lily is a very sympathetic protagonist who is acutely aware of her risk of developing this disorder; she also gives the reader a window into what it feels like to be unfairly dismissed based on their mental health status.
Certain characters look down on Lily based on the mere possibility that she may have inherited her mother’s illness; should this possibility prove to be true, the contempt would be that much worse. Any and all of Lily’s opinions can be dismissed based on the speculated status of her mental health. For an insecure and yet passionate young woman just emerging into adulthood, this is excruciating.
And then there’s Swifty. I got so emotionally invested in this baby elephant; Lily’s connection with Swifty is palpable, and my heart broke for both of them as Swifty struggled after being rejected by her mother. Many of the passages about Swifty are very well written, but some of them showcase the novel’s main weakness, in my opinion. It’s very clear that Fischer wanted this novel to educate, and that’s admirable.
However, with a 400 page book dealing with intricate subjects such as mental health, adolescence, parenting, and animal rights, the information may not always be woven seamlessly into the story. Certain passages felt forced and awkward. It sometimes felt like the author’s own research was pasted into the story without regard to the overall flow of the novel; it had the effect of pulling the reader momentarily out of the story.
Overall, this was a strong novel. It was well-paced with a well-developed and sympathetic protagonist. The story was interesting and multi-faceted. It brought us a character who, despite her overwhelming anxiety about her mental health, is more than her mental health status. Lily has people who love her deeply and a cause she’s willing to fight for.
Have you read When Elephants Fly? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
What are your favorite novels about mental health?